Vegas Games Day – May 12 2012

Savage World of My Little Pony

Blue dice are arranged on Savage Worlds info card with Rainbow Dash action figure

Part of GM Jerrod Gunning’s Elaborate Prep

What do you get when you combine the Origins award-winning Savage Worlds role-playing game system with the Emmy-nominated My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? A whole lot of fun and a game called Savage World of My Little Pony. I intrepidly signed up for the session when I saw it open on Warhorn, only having seen some old episodes of the original My Little Pony ‘n Friends series from Sunbow. When I was a kid and went along to my sister’s Girl Scout meetings with my mom and sister I would also play with the My Little Pony castle and the dragon Spike that the troop leader’s daughter had.

However, I knew this feeble background probably wouldn’t be enough to convincingly role play as a pony or pegasus. I wanted to be prepared after all, so I watched an episode of the new Friendship is Magic series, which seems to be Flash-animated. Given the opportunity to play as a pony, my wife decided to join me at the Vegas Games Day where the session was being held and she watched a number of further episodes. I caught a few more episodes in the background while painting miniatures. This would also be our first exposure to the Savage Worlds system.

Cupcake Justice

My Little Pony action figures square off at Vegas Games Day

The My Little Pony Epic Boss Fight Against the Evil Queen

As it turned out though, it was everyone’s first experience with Savage Worlds, for our GM and the 4 players alike. As it also happened, we would not be doing the publicized adventure from the show’s pilot and second episode, collecting the Elements of Harmony, because we started out with 3 PCs, and the planned adventure would require all 6 of the Mane Characters. I took the more butch tomboy Rainbow Dash (if a character with rainbow in her name can be considered masculine), my wife played appropriately enough Fluttershy, and Perry took the show’s chief protagonist, the scholarly and arcane Twilight Sparkle. We set off on our adventure, Cupcake Justice.

Pinkie Pie and all the other pony bakers and confectioners in Sugarcube Corner had been busy baking. Princess Celestia would be visiting from Canterlot for the Cupcake Cantillion, but disaster had struck! All of Pinkie Pie’s precious cupcakes had vanished. Twilight Sparkle sent messages to our characters via Spike and the investigation was on. We entered a flashback as Pinkie Pie tried to recall what she’d done earlier in the day. This was further complicated when our fourth player, Dylan, came along and took on the role of Pinkie Pie and hit the REWIND button in the flashback. One of Pinkie Pie’s Edges is Breaking the 4th Wall, as she frequently turns to the viewer in the cartoon series and contrives all sorts of odd anachronistic inventions. In the Flashback we’d seen a vial with some Icky dripping from it. We only discovered it was Icky after Fluttershy got too scared trying to investigate it, rolling a Critical Failure. Our GM decided that Fluttershy would be Shaken for 4 rounds as she trembled with fear. My bold and brash Rainbow Dash snatched the vial, unstoppering it, and tossed it up in the air to down it. This earned the character a fit of vomiting, but earned me the player a Benny for RPing my character’s Hindrances/Edges.

Unlike most games of Savage Worlds, we could share our bennies. Bennies are used to make rerolls, to escape from Shaken effects, and so on. We each started the game with 3, but through role-playing our characters Edges and Hindrances gained many more, in the form of gum drops. Later in the game, when Pinkie Pie Broke the 4th Wall for the last time by building a helicopter in the forest, we confronted some Changelings who were trying to get to Ponyville. Pinkie Pie crashed the helicopter and she and Twilight Sparkle were Stunned or Shaken. I spent 2 of my Bennies to get them unShaken and RP’d encouraging them to get up to their feet.

Our GM, Jarrod Gunning, really knocked himself out with his prep work for the adventure. We each had name tags we proudly wore, helpful handouts on the Savage Dice system, flipbooks with character abilities, Edges, and Hindrances, RP tips, and actual toy ponies to represent us. During my wife’s research into Friendship is Magic, we were both amused to learn about bronies, “bro” ponies fans. Jarrod Gunning is not a brony, but his daughter is a fan of the show and he’d playtested it a bit with her, her friend, and his wife. Our fourth player Dylan was also not a brony, but I laughed when he said some “bronies” he knew had made him watch the show.

Cover of role playing game system Savage Worlds showing spacefarer and fantasy warriorIn our adventure, which Gunning had devised himself mostly on the fly, we encountered Parasprites, Changelings, and the Queen of the Changelings. Twilight Sparkle and I used magical powers in dealing with them, such as my Whirlwind and Twilight Sparkle’s magical unicorn telekinesis and spells. Fluttershy hid and Pinkie Pie was her goofy self. There were Twilight Sparkle doppelganger Changelings and pretty much every other cartoon trope Gunning could cram in enjoyably. Twilight Sparkle defeated most of them herself. The moral climax of Cupcake Justice happened when Twilight Sparkle levitated a single cupcake into the mouth of the evil Queen, forcing her to acknowledge the pleasure that can be had with a cupcake. The second climax was Pinkie Pie’s desperate battle against herself and her Sweet Tooth hindrance after we baked up a mega cupcake for Princess Celestia to enjoy, using Spike as a bellows to help heat the delicious baked good. Dylan must have downed a dozen gum drop Bennies before finally succeeding.

Savage World of My Little Pony did not originate with Gunning himself. Instead he slightly modified some of the characters and powers found on Rodger Marsh’s (giftkrieg23) deviantart page. Marsh’s 66-page Savage World of My Little Pony PDF is available for free download and requires at least the Explorer’s Edition of Savage Worlds to play. While our party never got into full combat and there was never a chance of PC death, Gunning had done away with at least part of Marsh’s restriction(s) against violence.

7 Wonders

Game box for 7 Wonders showing Colossus of Roades, Pyramids of Ghiza, and other wondersWe played two games of the basic version of Asmodee Games’s 7 Wonders. I found the game to be enjoyable and easy to learn. It may even be a game where the cliche, “easy to learn, difficult to master” could apply. At the same time, I found myself agonizing each round over which card I would keep to expand my civilization. The “board game” aspect is using a random civilization playing board in front of you. In my first game I was Olympia and in my second, the more scientific Babylonians.

Players are able to purchase resources from adjacent neighbors, yet it involves no social interaction or bartering. There are no hurt feelings or manipulations as can be found in the Catan family of games (or indeed Munchkin later that night). Smart players keep tracking of their neighbors’ advancements and play off of those; I found myself too engrossed most of the time in my own developments to really begin trying to strategically block my neighbors. The only thing vaguely resembling conflict in the game occurs at the end of each age when Military Achievements are totaled. If you are stronger than your neighbors you get 1 VP in the first age, 3 in the 2nd, and 5 in the 3rd. Meanwhile the penalty for being weaker is a measly -1 VP token for each “defeat”. While there is a card that gives additional bonuses for defeated neighbors (Strategists’ Guild), the VPs it awards can be game changing, but not game breaking.

Wooden table with playing pieces for 7 Wonders, cards and tokens

An Unfolding Game of 7 Wonders in Progress

I also enjoyed how 7 Wonders scales as a game. Yes, we had fun with 5 people playing the game, but I barely glanced at the 2 people who weren’t my neighbors. I didn’t trade with them, I didn’t have to beat their Militaries, and I didn’t know the game well enough to keep track of which cards they had already deprived me of. The second game with only 3 players was much more intense. Many cards in the game award Victory Points, coins, or resources based on what your neighbors build, so every card brought out in a 3 player game can directly affect you. With 7 cards in each Age, you also will get 4 of the cards you initially passed on at the begging of the Age in the 4th turn. The other aspect of scale that I find encouraging is that I don’t see any reason why, in smaller games, players couldn’t agree to be dealt more cards. This is very appealing since I enjoy building and developing. Instead of 14 cards divided by 2 players, you could have 24 cards for a longer more developed session each Age.

7 Wonders has a more advanced B version and also has expansions with leaders and cities, so I look forward to exploring those in future Vegas Game Days or at other conventions.

Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule

Chubby goblin Gobble T. Goop on playing card for Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule
Guitar-jamming Candy Rock fairy from Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule

Example Card Art from Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule

In between the games of 7 Wonders, we played two quick games of Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule, the first offering from Game-O-Gami. The game’s developer, David Sanhueza, had brought his prototype of the game to Vegas Games Day and quickly walked us through a demo. The game consists of 20 double-sided playing cards depicting a Fairy/Faerie on one side and a Goblin on the other. Mike Maihack’s Froudesque illustrations are consistently strong throughout the cards and will doubtlessly appeal to fans of Faeries, young and old. Players are dealt a hand of Goblins face up. The first player to get rid of all of his or her goblins OR to have 6 Fairies in hand wins.

This is accomplished by choosing one card each turn to go into the central Faerie Ring. If your card has a bunch of stars on it then all of the cards in the Faerie Ring will flip, otherwise whether cards will flip depends on a rhyming mechanism. There are five rhyming families in Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule. Once any cards flip or not, if your card’s “suit” matches the emblem on any others, you take those cards. The charms or Symbols are Frogs and Mushrooms and then Suns and Moons. If a card is showing a Fairy with a Mushroom, then the reverse side must be a Goblin with a Frog.

The speed of gameplay really depends on the wits of the other players. I spent a lot of time staring at the Symbols trying to figure out what card(s) I would have to pick up from the Fairy Ring. Overall though, I think each game took no longer than 15 or 20 minutes to play. The Goblins have fun gross names to say like “Boogery Boo” or “Soggy Soup” and I can envision children and parents enjoying the game. Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule is also possible to play as a Solitaire game with 5 Goblins dealt and 5 cards in the middle.

Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule will begin its Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday, May 15. David Sanhueza expects the game to retail for $10-15. It also sounds as though there will be iOS versions of all Game-O-Gami releases.

Munchkin

Deluxe Munchkin game board dungeon and Munchkin playing cards

Munchkin game in progress. Opponent is 1st Level with Tons of Loot

I have been living under a rock and had never played Munchkin from Steve Jackson Games before, though I was certainly aware of it. My wife and I played a game of it with two other players, with what may have been 3 decks’ worth of cards. It took a while, but I started getting the hang of Kicking Down the Door, Looting the Room, or Looking for Trouble. The dungeon board is a feature of the Deluxe Set and not required to play the game, only serving as a visual cue for what level each player is. My wife ended up winning, due more to the social aspects of the game than to any plan or tactics of hers.

Much like her My Little Pony character, my wife is shy. She did not try to harm the three of us during the game, didn’t get terribly upset when cards were taken away from her, and was seldom targeted towards the end of the game. She was also sleepy. Out of all the games that Vegas Games Day though, Munchkin aroused the most intense emotions and got a little ugly to me. Trying to pick up the basic card mechanics was complicated by the social aspects of players crying “He’s going to win! We all have to stop X.” This happened at least 3 times in the hour long game. There were social maneuvers against trading cards, against combating monsters together, and so on. There was a slightly awkward and puzzling whine along the lines of “Well I guess the game’s about to be over. Looks like you’re going to win” when my wife made it to Level 7, this coming from the guy who had been at Level 7 for ages ahead of the rest of us. Unfortunately his ploy of focusing the attention of the other players fizzled, even though I suppose he was right. She did win, just 15-20 minutes after he tried to distract attention from his lead.

I spent most of the game frustrated and at Level 2. Any time I got equipment it would be taken away because of Income Tax, other players’ Thief abilities, Curses, and so on. We were all frustrated by 5 or 6 Rangers that were very close to one another in the deck. When the game ended, one player had maybe 3 or 4 Wandering Monsters, but no monsters to play them on. By the time my wife won though, there were three of us who had moved to Level 9. The only way to get to Level 10 and victory is by slaying a monster at Level 9.

Munchkin got physical too. If a fight is too difficult other players can assist the player in the fight, usually for a share of the Treasure. When I found out that I didn’t have to actually honor arrangements made with others who joined me in a fight and then was so much of a Munchkin as to try to keep all the treasure myself, there was a 10 second clawing fingers match over the 5 Treasure cards we had unearthed or looted. Amidst some laughter, my “helper” pried away one of my Treasures. No blood was shed, but I could still feel the sensation of his badger-like fingers digging into my own 10 minutes later.

My thoughts also lingered on Munchkin. Despite the ugly emotions it had engendered, or maybe because of them, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night having feverish Munchkin dreams and nightmares. While my wife is not interested in playing again, I think I am. I want to see all the different cards that are possible. We didn’t play with Portals or Dungeons. No Elves or Halflings appeared in our games despite frequent references to them on other cards.

Goblins Rule, Faeries Drool card image copyright Game-O-Gami. 7 Wonders box art copyright Asmodee Games. Savage Worlds cover copyright Pinnacle Entertainment. All used with permission.

Jerry Grayson on Hellas, Godsend Agenda, and Atlantis

I interviewed Jerry Grayson on May 2 at his home in Las Vegas. He is the designer of Hellas and Godsend Agenda. His publishing company, Khepera Publishing, will also be releasing the forthcoming Atlantis: The Second Age. As I interviewed Jerry, his gaming group slowly trickled in to play a 2nd Edition game of Dark Sun.

Jerry Grayson’s Secret Origin as a Gamer

Hellas author Jerry Grayson poses in red Dungeons & Dragons t-shirt

Hellas and Godsend Agenda designer Jerry Grayson

CG: So how did you get into gaming, Jerry?
JG: Oh, God. I got into gaming in 1980. My friend across the street, his father ran a D&D game. So you’d go over there and be like hey, what are they doing? And he’d be like “Playing D&D!” So then you’d go over there and you’d watch and my friend would play, but there wasn’t room enough for me to play. So you’d go over there and watch and go “Oh man, I wish I could play!” And then one day, a seat opened up at the table, and I got to actually play D&D.
CG: Who did you play as, do you remember?
JG: Oh gosh, I can’t remember. I was-, I can’t remember. I was probably some Elf or something. The only thing that I can remember about that is going down a river on a boat and there was a killer whale there. That’s all I can remember about that game, but I remember that that was so awesome to me, because it was such a new experience and a new way to play make-believe that it really imprinted on me. Then later on, my friend who lived next door actually got the Basic and the Expert sets, so my brother and I, we made characters for that and we played. We made it 3 rooms into a dungeon and then I was killed by a fire beetle and that was awesome. From there it just went on. We started playing D&D regularly. Then one day a friend came; he had a milk crate full of role-playing games that he’d gotten at the swap meet. He’d bought them at the swap meet a while ago and he brought them, because he was never going to play them. And in there, there were other games. There was Call of Cthulu, there was Aftermath, there was Danger Unlimited, Stormbringer, oh gosh, I want to say Dragonraid was in there, but I’m not sure. But there were just a bunch of games and it was just kind of weird, because when you’d read them, you’re like “Ok, well how do I roll to hit?” Because I don’t know if you’ve ever played any of the Chaosium games, but they’re all percentile-based, which is kind of weird, because if you’ve come from just playing D&D and all of sudden you’re like, “Well how do I hit? What’s my Armor Class? Oh! These games work different.” So then we started playing Stormbringer. From there I started playing all sorts of stuff. The TMNT stuff got me into Palladium, then Robotech, and then RIFTS. I also was playing DC Heroes…
CG: From Mayfair, right?
JG: Yeah, from Mayfair, which is like my all-time favorite game ever. And then just a ton of games, we would play like just about anything, or at least I would. And then we’d have that one stable game group and all they’d play was D&D. So then you’d go “Hey, guys, why don’t we play this, I’ve got this one game, Dark Conspiracy, do you want to play that?” And they’re like “I don’t know.” What else? I tried to get them to play all sorts of stuff, but they would always stay with that. Once that group kind of broke apart then I kind of inherited everyone and then we started playing you name it.

One of the first games we played was probably RIFTS because it was probably in the late 80s like ’89 or so, so we started playing RIFTS, but then we would do DC Heroes. I hipped them to that one. Then we played Dark Conspiracy for a while and then lots of GURPS. I ended up playing a lot of GURPS. Played some Vampire, but funny enough, I played Vampire using GURPS. I would play in Vampire games, but when I’d run it, I’d end up using GURPS for Vampire for some weird resason, which is weird, I don’t know why, but that’s the way we rolled I guess. But we played a ton of games and then gosh, like the mid-90s we started doing the LARPs and that’s where I met Janet, my friend [who had arrived to play AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun].
CG: What did you LARP as or what sort of LARPs were playing?
JG: We did mostly Vampire LARPs. Every once in a while, you’d do like a fantasy one. I ran an In Nomine one. We did In Nomine, we did a little bit of everything. Throughout that we just played a ton of different games. Gosh, I’ve played a lot of different games. Probably not as many as some, but you know, enough to go “Ok, I know what that is.” or “I know what this is. I know what this mechanic is from. Or this game plays like this.” When we first played Over the Edge or Feng Shui, you’d see those mechanics in later games.

Origins of Hellas: Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Space Becomes Greeks in Space

Sorceress woman on cover of Wine Dark Void empties a chalice

Goddess Aionisia from Hellas: Wine Dark Void

CG: What was the genesis of Hellas?
JG: It’s funny because when I was looking at this computer, I found some of my old notes on it. Hellas comes from me playing Dynasty Warriors. It’s a video game.
CG: For NES, right? Oh! No, no.
JG: Dynasty Warriors, I played it on the Playstation and XBOX, but you know, it comes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I played on the NES, but basically you just run around and you’re killing stuff. You’re like one of the heroes in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
CG: Liu Bei.
JG: Exactly. Liu Bei or Cao Cao, whatever. And you just run through and there’s tons of soldiers that come at you, you just kind of murder them up. And I was like “This would make such a cool role-playing game. If you were one of these guys.” So originally Hellas was going to be Romance of the Three Kingdoms in space, because I had this whole thing set up where you had the Forbidden City and instead of a city, you had a planet. And the Emperor was served by all these AI or cybernetic eunuchs that sequestered him away and then you had these warriors, because the Empire was fractioned was being destroyed and you had these heroes. And then I kind of got lazy, because in order to do that, or at least in order for me to do it, you had to do all the research for it and I didn’t think I could do it justice. Plus, that book is pretty dang thick, man. That thing’s like a little Bible, it’s like a million pages long. So I figured, well, I could still do it, but I’d just use Greek mythology.

So I decided to do the Greek stuff, because I’m familiar with it and you can do a lot of neat, iconic things with it. So Mike and I, Mike Fiegel-

CG: What’s your background with Mike?
JG: I first met Mike when Mike did some editing for me for Godsend Agenda and then we became friends. I was doing Godsend Agenda which is a superhero game, or a superheroic game, but you know, I’d done a couple supplements for that, but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to do a science fiction game. So I wrote all these notes, and I came up with the Three Kingdoms idea and all sorts-, I had one that was almost like Buck Rogers/Flash Gordony one, one that was going to be the Three Kindoms. Once I decided to do the Greeks in space idea, I contacted Mike. So we went back and forth where basically I sent him a treatment and then he would send back ideas and we created it from there. There’s some notes on there [his computer]. When you see them, it’s so different and you can kind of see the progression. I wish I could find those notes to see where we started and what we eventually ended up with.
CG: When was this?
JG: This was in 2006, we did this. Godsend Agenda came out in 2002. The second edition of Godsend Agenda came out in 2006, so it must have been like 2007-2006, somewhere around there to put these things out, because it’s only really me and Mike. Yeah, it’s usually about 18 months from start to finish to do one of those.
CG: And back then in 2006ish there really wasn’t a Kickstarter, so you’re funding everything yourselves.
JG: Yes, Hellas was funded from Godsend Agenda profits. That and my 401k from a job I had, which was just kind of sitting there, so I just took the money out from that. Most of it comes from convention profits, because that’s really where like, if you’re a publisher, you end up making the money is at a convention, because you really don’t make as much through distribution, but at conventions, you can make, a ton of cash. I was flush with cash and just nuts. I couldn’t spend it fast enough on heroin, so I figured I should do something else like make a role playing game. So yeah, that one came from there, so we talked about it, went back and forth, came up with some ideas, kind of codified what we would do. Then, I went to England for a convention and on the plane ride back I wrote most of it in this little book, how everything would be unified so that it just wouldn’t be a kitchen sink, hodge podge, in space, which I really didn’t want. That’s what, hopefully, I’ve achieved is made it really tightly focused in what it does, so that when you think about playing Greeks in space, you’ll think about Hellas. Just like with, let’s say with arcane survival horror, you’ll think about Call of Cthulu or something like that, so that it cannot be mistaken for anything else, except for what it is is. So when people have asked “Can I play Star Wars with it?” You’re like “Well, you can, but it won’t work as well for Star Wars as it will for Hellas.” Some people are like, “Well, can I convert my Traveller game to it?” It’s like, “You could, but it’s definitely not going to feel like a Traveller game. It’s going to feel like Hellas with talking dogs and pod people or Kafers or whatever.” I’ve attempted to make it its own beast. There’s a lot of mechanics in there that feed that, or at least hopefully, they feed that.

Hellas‘s Mythological Roots

Winged angelic Nephelai and snake-like Gorgeon from Hellas

Races Available in Hellas: Winged Nephelai and Naga-like Goregon

CG: Did you return to Greek mythology yourself in preparation and reread a whole bunch of classics?
JG: Yeah, you had to read the Iliad. You had to watch a whole bunch of sword and sandal movies and try and figure out and distill what that essence is, kind of like with the new One Ring game, with that one, with the Lord of the Rings One Ring game, where it’s not D&D. Because it’s easy just to make it, ok, here’s space. And here, they’re wearing some helmets with horse hair on top and that’s it. But to make it so that it feels like it, you have to figure out who these heroes are. Or what makes Greek heroes different than just another superheroic character in other types of fiction. So you kind of have to figure out who they are, figure out what makes that particular thing neat. Because, let’s say for instance, if I was to do it with Celtic mythology or if I was to do it with Hindu mythology, I’d have to figure out what makes that work that way. Or even Egyptian mythology, because some folks have asked “Are there Egyptians? Are there space Celts?”
CG: Yeah, I asked that too.
JG: It’s like, no, because if I did that, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t resonate the same. Because a Greek hero is a particular type of hero who is different from like the Celtic hero. In order to do the Celtic thing, we’d have to do like the Celtic sagas that happened or were written. Or the Egyptians, which are really weird. Their mythology is, it kind of makes you drunk when you read it, because it’s like a million different gods and there’s a god for this, a god for that, and these gods do this and they kind of overlap. It’s like kind of a really muddy water color, the Egyptian mythology. You know it’s cool, but I’m not making Stargate and that’s what people want, which is cool because that’s kind of what Godsend Agenda has, like the essence of Stargate in it, but I wanted to make something that felt authentic as opposed to a pastiche of Greek adventure.

CG: Which Greek heroes were you particularly drawn to yourself?
JG: Well, you got your Perseus, your Thesues. What I really liked was Achilles especially in the Iliad, when you read that, how much of a bastard he is, but he’s like the greatest. He can back it up though! It’s like, yeah, I am a jerk, but I can back it up, because if anybody says anything, I’ll just stab you or whatever. He’s kind of a great character because at the beginning of the story, it’s just them kind of being pissed off with each other and arguing, because Agamemnon took his prize. And he’s just like “Nah, I’m not going to do it.” And then as the story goes on Odysseus is always cool because he’s the crafty one, especially in the Iliad, his misadventures, stealing horses. It’s like, he’s a car thief. It’s like “We’ll go over there, steal some horses, we’ll stab up some people while they sleep, then we’ll roll back” type thing. These characters are just, they’re really neat and big, because they’re painted in such broad strokes. But then they have this crippling Fate/failing that just like destroys them, except for Odysseus because he manages to make it out after 20 years. All those guys, they just manage to end poorly. Like Jason ends poorly. It’s like, you get home, you have your hot wife, you guys have some kids, you dump her, you get a new wife. She kills your kids.
CG: Medea.
JG: Yeah, and you end up all alone on your old rickety boat and then you die because the mast falls down and hits you in the head. That’s not, you know, like the way that most people in a role-playing game would want to die, but in all these Greek myths, you know, these characters died horrible, sad pathetic deaths. Hercules, being burned to death by the poisoned cloak. Theseus was kind of a bastard too when he left what’s her face on that island. Like they get off that island and it’s like “Yeah, babe, we’re going to be together forever.” He just kind of leaves and bones out.
CG: And his father.
JG: Yeah, and his father jumps off a cliff! They all have really neat things, but I really like Odysseus and Achilles, I guess, if I had to pick, just because Achilles was just an absolute bad-ass and Odysseus was incredibly crafty and well-thought out.

Epithets as Game Mechanics

CG: His epithet is wily Odysseus frequently. So epithets in Hellas are a game mechanic, right?
JG: Yeah, in Hellas that’s a game mechanic. It allows you to break the rules. It allows you to do one thing that is impossible, but that your character can do, because you’re a hero. So in other games, they’ll give you like maybe a +2 bonus or this, because they want to keep it balanced, but if you’ll read Hellas, Hellas is completely unbalanced and doesn’t even make any pretense to be balanced. If your character is let’s say Bronzed-Arm Dorios and if you define that epithet as being really strong, then if the spaceship is trying to get away and you could just say “Ok, well, I hold it.” Just cause in myth, in those myths, they would do just ridiculous things. They wouldn’t do it all the time. Like Hercules in his labors, he would struggle with some stuff, but then other stuff, he’d just divert a river. Like “I’m going to divert a river.” And you’re like “Well, that is crazy, Hercules,” but then he’d struggled with other stuff, like fighting a lion, but it’s like, if you can divert a river-, well, I guess he did choke out a lion, but you know, he shouldn’t have as much of a problem, if you’re doing your Popeye to divert rivers.
CG: Where did the space aspect come in? I saw that you like Ice Pirates
JG: Oh, Ice Pirates! Galaxina,
CG: Flash Gordon.
JG: Flash Gordon, definitely Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon the comic strip and Flash Gordon the movie. Because I wanted to do a science fiction game to begin with and just to add a Greek overlay on the top of it, which adds really great visuals when you look at the artwork. The artists who did the artwork, they’ve done a really good job of making it look distinct. It doesn’t look like any other science fiction. And that’s because of the artists being so awesome.

The Art Direction in Hellas

Computer-generated spaceships battle in outspace in Hellas

Ships designed by Grayson clash in space.

CG: Now are you one of the artists?
JG: I do some of the art. I don’t do any of the great art. I do all the auxillary art and I do all the layout. If you look at the core book, there’s some of my artwork that was snuck in there, that’s in there where there would have been white space. It’s like, ok, there needs to be a piece of art there. So then I’ll draw a picture or I will do some type of design work. All the CG artwork is mine, because that was easy to do and it’s cheap because I don’t have to pay myself. But for the most part, all of the artwork that screams Hellas or all the stuff I use in promotion, that’s a different artist. That’s Nathan Rosario, does all that artwork.
CG: What about all the ship designs?
JG: That’s all me. And that’s because I wanted the ships to kind of look like Greek ships so if you look at any of the spaceships in profile they kind of look like a bireme or trireme, Greek vessel. Except when you turn three quarters, and you see the rest of the ship and it looks kind of weird and futuristic. I wanted it to kind of not look like your standard spaceships with all the goofy spaceship trappings. I wanted to make them look kind of like everything else, uniquely Hellas. Like you’ll never ever see any other kind of lame, crappy, kind of spaceships like you see in Hellas anywhere else, I can guarantee.

Caucasian woman dreams of Slipspace and Spartans

An example of Grayson’s own art, The Dreamer

CG: Now you’re a graphic designer by trade?
JG: Yep, graphic designer.
CG: Where did you go to school?
JG: Went to community college here in Las Vegas and just a lot of online tutorials and stuff like that. So I went to school for it in 1992-93. When I went to school they were just starting to use computers to do stuff. So I was learning how to do stuff on wax boards and stuff like that, I don’t know if you know what those are, but when you would lay out a page, basically you would run it through this machine and it would put hot wax on it, so it’d be sticky. And then what you would do is you would take your text and you would put it on that board and just kind of lay it on there and lay it out however you wanted it. And if you didn’t like it, you’d peel it back up and re-lay it out. If you wanted a title, there was this machine where you would type in the title and it would print a title and you could put that on there. You used a lot of Zipatone, a lot of Xacto knives, a lot of rubylith stuff, a lot of stuff you will never ever see anymore being used, but that was the way I learned how to do it.
CG: Pre-Illustrator.
JG: Yeah, exactly, before people were using computers regularly, that’s the way you would do it. You’d get a board, run it through, and it’d be kind of gridded or lined out and you could kind of line stuff up. Yeah, I couldn’t imagine laying out a book like that anymore, because that would make me cry a little bit.

CG: How much do you think, as an RPG developer, that it has helped you to have the graphic design background?.
JG: As an RPG publisher, it’s helped me because there’s a lot of expenses I don’t have to pay because I can do them all myself. I can lay the book out. I can draw some of the artwork. If the artwork needs a touch-up or recoloring I can do that myself. Logo designs I can do myself. Just the visual look of the book. So when I decide I want a character to look like this, I can draw it and send it off to the artists and they’ll send it back. Also I think that it helps me with the relationships I have with artists, where with other games I’ve worked on, like I’ve done some stuff for Disk Wars, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?
CG: No.
JG: It was from Fantasy Flight Games, it was a pog game, it was really awesome. It was a little pog game where they had little art on each one of the pogs and it was like a wargame. You’d just flip the pogs and they’d land on each other and they’d fight. That game was fantastic. Doing art for that you would get like an art brief and it’d be kind of weird and complicated and all kind of weird stuff that the art director would put in there. Sometimes these art directors are not really artists, so they really don’t understand. But with me, it’s like, “I need a guy with a squid face!” And he’ll give me a squid face. And I’ll be like “That’s fantastic! That’s exactly what I was looking for.” Or I’ll send him a picture of Ben 10, because that’s kind of what the Zintar are built on. The Micronauts, I dont’ know if you’re familiar with that comic book or the toy line. The Micronauts and the alien from Ben 10 are the Zintar. So I would just send them. And also I’d just let them have fun, so it’s like “Ok, give me these four pieces, and I’ll pay you for a 5th piece, but you do whatever you want to do as long as it fits into Hellas.”

The Myrmidon Ant Warriors

Black and red line art image of Greek Hellas god holding staff Aemoton

Hellas deity Aemoton

CG: Now what’s the origin of the Myrmidons because they’re pretty interesting as a species.
JG: The Myrmidons, it’s me wanting to do an insect race, but not the way that they were done in other books. Because every other time I’ve seen someone do the Myrmidons it’s always been a big ant. It’s been a big ant in armor. And I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be cooler if you know, like, kind of like how they were described as like these ants that turn into men, what if it was like an entire colony that was one entity? Then to figure out how to make them work, I just threw a queen in there, she’s like the controller-
CG: She’s the brain.
JG: Yeah, exactly, so she controls the entire colony, but the colony is shaped like a normal human being.
CG: I think Traveller has something slightly similar, but this was your-
JG: I know that they have the Kafers which are these giant bugs, that you beat them, they get smarter. The more adversity, the smarter they become, but I’m not sure of anything else, but then again, I’m not a huge Traveller-
CG: There’s something called the K’kree or something that have a herd. So the PC is 40 different individuals. 40 things make the PC.
JG: Now are they the horse guys?
CG: Something like that. They’re the herbivores.
JG: Right yeah. Those guys. I just wanted something that would be unique, that I hadn’t seen before. And also, you ever watch the old Spiderman cartoon?
CG: Yes.
JG: Remember Swarm? [Laughs] He’s kind of like Swarm, a whole bunch of insects. Not necessarily just ants, but just insects, that this queen manages to gather up psionically and makes it go. And I thought it’d be cool. I’d love to see it in a movie. I’d love to see a Hellas movie, so I can see these things come to life.

Hellas Playing Mat, Event Cards, and the Omni System

Yellow spaceship from Hellas RPG vaguely W-shaped

Amazoran Cruiser designed by Grayson

CG: Now as for Hellas, I saw when we played the game there was a huge playing mat which we didn’t use, what’s the deal with the playing mat or the cards?
JG: The cards come from me wanting to have cards so I make them pretty, do a Kickstarter for them so I can get a set printed for myself. Then, like, since you helped me with it, you can have a cardset. The cards come from, if you’ve ever played Torg?
CG: Yes! Ok.
JG: The Torg drama deck, where these cards would do neat and interesting things or gosh! I can’t remember the name. Jonathan Tweet put out a game. Ugh! I can’t remember the name of that game! It’s a game with nothing but cards. Everway! Which is nothing but cards and the cards explain stuff that you can do. And they kind of help you with mental creative exercises, so that’s what the cards are. And what the mat was is that it’s really expensive to do a GM screen. It’s a lot cheaper to actually just print a poster. So what the mat is is basically it’s a huge GM screen.
CG: With the rules?
JG: Yeah, that everyone can use. So if someone’s like “How much does it cost to raise an attribute?” It’s like “Oh, it’s right there on the mat.” So as we’re playing, you can sit there and look at the mat. How much glory do I get for this? Oh, it’s right there on the mat. So it’s basically a big GM and player screen that everyone can use. I made it so that the cards can sit right in the middle. So that you could have your card deck, which has all sorts of goofy stuff that you can do and goofy stuff that can happen. It has different plot twists on it, so if things are getting stale in the game, you can just flip a card and the guys with the machine guns bust in and start shooting. Or you find out that your lover is your sister or something weird like that, where it’s like “Wow, I didn’t expect that to happen in the game,” but the cards kind of move stuff like that along.

CG: Backing up, how did you pick which rules system to use, because you use the…?
JG: I use the Omni System for Hellas, but since I’ve also done stuff with the d6 system which was the system for Star Wars and a few other West End Games games, Hercules and Xena was one of them, which was an awesome game. That’s another game that feels distinctly like Hercules and Xena, the way they’ve done that, which is really awesome, I took a lot of influence from that or stole a lot. So we played it at first with the d6 system and it just didn’t work as well. The problem that I was having was that the dice couldn’t-. It just didn’t feel right, it’s like when you listen to like music and you hear the demo of a song and then you hear what the song actually sounds like at the end and you’re like “Wow, I’m glad they went with that.” That’s kind of what it was. It was like, ok, it works, but it just doesn’t resonate right. It doesn’t feel right. It’s a little too heavy. But with the Omni System, with that small chart where basically everything happens on that chart, and it all runs off of intent, and that’s what your intent is, then that’s it. If your intent was to jump across the cliff, there’s not a lot of rules for jumping across cliffs, it’s just basically, what’s your intent? Here’s your modifier. If you succeed, you succeed.
CG: You can call upon a god and say “Great Hoseidon, aid me in this jump!”
JG: Exactly and that will actually give you bonuses to make that jump and that’s what I liked about the system. It was originally created for Talislanta. So I talked to the guy who owns Talislanta, or the creator, Steve Sechi. He said go ahead and use it so I just took the system and modified it for Hellas and made it a Hellas system and it works. Right now I’m in the middle of revamping it and taking out some of the artifacts that were left over from Talislanta and kind of streamlining it a little more.
CG: This is going into the recently Kickstarted-
JG: Yeah, the Revised. Which we also used for Godsend Agenda.

Godsend Agenda: Superpowered Aliens as Gods

Cover for RPG Godsend Agenda by Khepera Publishing showing god battling snake godCG: Conveniently enough, what’s a brief overview of Godsend Agenda. It’s superheroes in space?
JG: No, because funny enough, it all just happens on Earth. If gods walked the earth, they’d be considered superheroes now. And what the Godsend Agenda is, it’s basically this Galactic Empire, their way of taking over planets. Basically they will come to a planet and instead of bringing millions of troops to pacify the populace of the planet, they’ll bring 12 people. They’ll set themselves up as gods and then the populace will just kind of fall in line, because they’ll fight amongst themselves until it’s over. And they’ll wait like a couple thousand years for it to happen, because these guys are essentially immortal. And in Godsend Agenda, what happens is a prison ship from that empire crashes on Earth, the prisoners get out, and they use the Godsend Agenda to set themselves up as gods. So you’ve got the Egyptian pantheon, the Greek pantheon, and all these people were actually prisoners or political dissidents on this prison ship. So the game can be played in a bygone era, so you could play it as a fantasy game where you’re a god back in the olden days or-
CG: The PCs all take the role of a god?
JG: They can or they can just be superheroes in this world, because essentially if these gods actually did live today with the media and multimedia and stuff, you could still be a god, and you’d still be worshipped. And that’s where you get more of your power from is from glory. The more glory you have the more power you have, but they would be pop stars. If Hercules lived today and people were telling his tales, you’d see him on red carpets and at places, but you know, he might go out and punch someone in the face or pick up a car and throw it. So you have that with Godsend Agenda and there’s a secret history behind it.
CG: There is a lot of overlap between the two, huh?
JG: Yes, because that’s one thing that I really like is just mythology.
CG: And the Greek gods were petty and it’s the same way with Godsend Agenda, right?
JG: Well yeah. Well, because they’re just people. They’re not necessarily a higher life form; they’re just a life form that knows how to-. Even with humans, you can learn how to use this energy called ka in Godsend Agenda and once you learn how to use it, you can use it for good, you can use it for bad.
CG: Like the Egyptian ka?
JG: Yeah, yep. Like where you have your ba and your ka. Basically I just took ka, that piece of your spirit and just made that an energy form in Godsend Agenda where like, if you learn to manipulate it, you can do anything you want and that’s what they do. But yeah, mythology runs through all the games. Like right now we’re working on Atlantis, which was an older game, made by the same guy who made Talislanta. So I bought the rights to that and I’m going to rerelease that soon, which is funny ’cause all three games have Atlanteans in them. All three games have Atlantis in them. So there must be something going on with Atlantis that I’m trying to work out that eventually I will work out and my work will be done on this planet and I can have my apotheosis and go someplace cool.

CG: Who’s Khepera Publishing? Is that you and-
JG: Just me. It’s basically me. Mike Fiegel has a company called Aethereal Forge and through that he produced Ninja Burger. So he does that. He created Ninja Burger, he did a role playing game called Vox, which is really awesome. He also did a game called Power Girl, which is kind of like a superheroic kind of Sailor Moonish game, but he’s really really clever, Mike is, and he comes up with a lot of really cool ideas. I liken him to-, there’s John and then there’s Paul from the Beatles. So that’s what we do. But…look what happened to John. So I don’t know which one of us is John. I’m going to say that he is so that I can just grow old and turn into an old lady like Paul McCartney. Yeah, that’s what we do.

Jerry Grayson’s Favorite D&D World: Dark Sun and Experience Playing Hellas Himself

CG: So, right now though, you’ve played so many games, but tonight as we wrap up, you’re about to play Dark Sun, 2nd Edition.
JG: Oh yeah! This is my favorite D&D world. There’s Dark Sun and then there’s probably Greyhawk, which are probably my two favorite D&D game worlds and even though 2nd Edition gets punched in the eye a lot, it gets choked out and throttled like-, yeah I really like 2nd Edition over 3rd Edition or 4th Edition. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, like “Back in my day, we used to,” but it’s easy. I can look at a stat block in 2nd Edition and completely understand what the monster does as opposed to going “Ok, he’s got a mobility feat, he’s got this move through this-” It’s like what the hell does all this stuff do? In this, I know that this huge spider has Type A poison. It will kill you or you’ll take 15 points of damage and that’s it. It’s simple.
CG: You’re playing 2nd Edition straight up with THACO and everything?
JG: Oh, we’re going hardcore, man. I’m going Iron Man. I’m attempting to run this game as written. So as it is written is the way I will run it, with all its weird warts and idiosyncracies, it will run that way. Hopefully it will run well, but going back and actually playing it now, since you start playing all these other games, when you look at some of these rules they actually make perfect sense. You know, when you’re a little kid and reading them, you’re like “That doesn’t make sense.” or “This should work like this and if I was doing it, it’d do it like this.” But when you go back and play it now, you’re like “Oh, this is actually kind of awesome. I wish I could rewrite this game and make it my own.” Which I thought about doing today. I was thinking “I should just rewrite 2nd Edition.” And I was like no, because that would actually take real time.
[Players have been showing up for his Dark Sun game.]
Jerry’s Player: And involve a lawsuit.
JG: No, well not if I changed it enough. If I changed it enough, it’d be Jer Edition. It’d be A Jer and Jer. We could be playing some J&J in here, but yes, Dark Sun, which is probably my favorite D&D fantasy world. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it, but yeah, it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy game. It’s what happens after all the cool stuff happens and this is what you end up with after that big battle to save the world in other role playing games, this is what you’re left with. It’s just a burnt-out wasteland with slaves and cannibals and just weird stuff. You could shoot a Tupac video in Dark Sun with people with goggles.
CG: “California”…
JG: Exactly, you could have people with baseball bats with spikes in them and yeah, they actually got weapons like that in Dark Sun. So it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy game.

CG: And you’re running it, but did I hear you correctly that you have only played Hellas twice now?
JG: That I’ve not run?
CG: Right.
JG: Yes. Haha. I’ve only got to play it twice that I’ve not run it. Other games, Tony ran Godsend Agenda, I got to play that, and I think that was probably the only time I got to play that one. Yeah, every other game I’ve managed to be a player in. In Nomine, we used to take turns, like you’d get extra experience points if you ran the game, so then I’d play a character and someone else would run the game. But yeah, Hellas I’ve only got to play twice and I’ve realized it really sucks, so I wouldn’t play that game. That game’s ridiculous. I’d rather play, what’s a good game? Fantasy Imperium, remember that game? [Someone suggests Star Children] Star Children‘s actually pretty awesome. But yes, I’d definitely play that one. Yeah, I don’t get to play. I’d like to play Hellas more. I’m curious, because I come up with these characters when I’m writing ’em. I’m like “Yeah, that guy would be bad ass!”

CG: Who wrote all the stories in Hellas?
JG: That’s Mike. Mike did all the fiction. All the other stuff that makes no sense, like the mechanics and all that crap, I wrote. All the fiction, those chapter pieces, he wrote.

Khepera Publishing’s Relaunch of Atlantis

CG: What would the street date be for Atlantis?
JG: Well, Atlantis comes after I get done with the Revised Hellas and Sword and Sandals. I’d like to be done with those by the end of June. I’d like to be done, but, you know, that doesn’t mean anything. I’d like to be done with both of those by the end of June and complete Atlantis. Because I’ll fiddle with it, but I haven’t gone hardcore into that one. That, in theory, could be done by the end of the year. The system’s written, because it’s going to use-, because originally I wrote the system [to be used] for Atlantis. We cleaned it up, then we started playing Godsend Agenda with it, cleaned it up some more, now I’m putting that into Hellas and so all those games will run using the basic core, but they won’t necessarily be compatible because Godsend Agenda‘s a completely different animal than Hellas is, which will be a completely different animal from what Atlantis is. Atlantis is going to be kind of Conan-y. It’s going to be that weird sword and sorcery. Like 70s sword and sorcery fiction is what I’m trying for with that one. Like when you’d read books from Tor or Daw, back in like the 80s and 70s, the way they were just, you know, nothing was written to be a three-part book. You don’t get any Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones stuff. It was just weird shit that was happening out in the wilderness. They would cut something up and somebody’d do a spell and they would swallow half a planet. It’s just weird. And that’s what I want to do with that. I want to do an old school Da or Tor book that is Atlantis. That’s what I want to do. And then people will hate it because there’s existing fans for the original game. You know what I will do? I will George Lucas them away from Atlantis. I will make something that will so completely annoy them because I got rid of all the elves, there’s no elves, got rid of all the dwarves, and it’s just your goofy sword and sorcery, you know, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan, Elric, and all those crappy novels you read in like the early 80s, late 70s, just bad wrong fun. That’s what I want to do.

All Hellas and Godsend Agenda images copyright Khepera Publishing, used with permission.

2012 GAMA Trade Show – Online Retail Debate

On Thursday, March 15th of the 2012 GAMA Trade Show there was a panel on Online Retail in the Pacific Ballroom, which is where the lunches and dinners are held. Based on the size of the event’s room, I figured it would be important and made my way to a table in the front of the room. As I began to write down notes, I turned on my voice recorder, in case I missed anything. The following is my transcript of the fascinating, 50-minute debate that ensued. I have made very minor edits for the sake of clarity.

Introduction to the Online Retailing Panel

Michael Stackpole: Our esteemed panelists here represent both online retailing and brick and mortar retailing. What we wanted to do – instead of having a knife fight, which would have been entertaining, but the room is too big and we didn’t have it in the round, so we just sort of scrapped that plan – we want to have a dialogue about this, the whole idea being that we want to take a look at what strategies, what solutions people have been using, how we deal with this both as an industry and as manufacturers and as retailers. Hopefully, the intention is that by the end of this particular seminar you’ll have some ideas, you’ll have some information, you’ll have some perspective so that you’re not worrying about this overmuch, and you’ll have some strategies then that you could work with both by yourself and in consultation with manufacturers and with other retailers to find a way to make the internet and everything work for you.

So I’ve got a series of questions and our panelists have been prepped with these questions. We’re going to go with somewhat of a presidential debate debate style. We will have the question being asked, we will have a commentary and a rebuttal, and we will switch back and forth. We will probably at some point go off-script just because, as this discussion goes on, we’ll want to emphasize certain things. I don’t know if we will have time for questions. If we do, I’ll attempt to facilitate those. For right now, we just want to sort of have a discussion and get information out.

The Advantages to the Game Industry From Online Discount Vendors

Michael Stackpole: So the very first question I’ve got for you guys is this, what are the advantages for the industry – not just being individual merchants – of online discount vendors? What do online discounters bring to our overall community to keep it vibrant and going? John, you’ll go first.

Orange and blue checkerboard floor at Titan's Entertainment Cafe with over 200 board games

2011 GAMA Best Designed Store: Titan’s Entertainment Cafe

Jon Huston: This would depend on which kind of online discount retailer. But I would say that the number one thing that an online discount retailer brings to the industry is not the discounted price, it’s the selection of goods. In almost every case, a good solid online discounter retailer is able to provide far more selection of goods in their storefront than would either make sense or be suitable for sale in a brick and mortar store. Our impression from the customers that we get is that the majority of customers that buy from us, buy from us because the particular good that they want to buy is not available to them locally. They’re not buying from us because they’re trying to get a better price. Now, in that particular regard, this is where I got to admit that we are not the cheapest online discount retailer. In fact, we’re probably not even the top twenty percent on most of the stuff we sell. So for those who are focused entirely on price, we should probably not be their first choice, but those who are looking for selection that’s where we emphasize our product line. By being able to offer such a wide selection of stuff, it’s allowed manufacturers who are more into the long tail of goods to be able to have a platform to sell those goods from. I don’t think we would have five or six thousand different board games in print right now, if there was not an online retailer presence, because such a small number of those board games would be able to be carried by any one store. I was just at the Store Design seminar earlier today, which was a store [Titan’s Entertainment Cafe] that won an award last year for Best Designed Store and the store is very proud that they actually carry 200 different board games and I know from going to stores that 200 different board games is an incredible selection, but that also represents about three percent of all the board games currently in print today.

Michael Stackpole: (Jon, just give yourself a brief introduction just so…)

Jon Huston: Alright. I’m Jon Huston. I’m the CEO of Troll and Toad. Troll and Toad started off as a mail order game retailer in 1994 and as the internet came into being we switched from being mail order magazine advertiser over to an online website and currently we’re one of the larger presences on the web for the hobby game industry itself.

David Wallace: Good afternoon. I’m Dave Wallace. I’m a brick and mortar retailer. I opened our first store back in 1981. I’ve got 4 stores in St. Louis right now. I’m going to surprise, I think, a lot of people at this, by telling you that I agree with a lot of what Jon has to say. I don’t see the internet seller as an extreme danger to us. I think it’s important to keep a few key facts in mind. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, brick and mortar stores. There are three stores in your town and everybody is doing 300,000 in sales, and one of the stores goes under, does that mean that the other 2 stores are now going to pick up that 300,000? No. It doesn’t. No, usually it’d be tough and a stress to pick up 5 to 10 percent of it. Most of those customers simply leave the market. If we have two stores doing 300,000, somebody else opens up a shop and they go up to 400,000 in sales, does that mean the first two are now out of business or struggling? No. The point is that each business builds its own customer base. We only tend to poach about 5 to 10 percent of our customers off of each other. It seems like a much higher number, but the reality is each business generates its own customer base. Online sellers generate on the most part, their own customer base.

Remember too that most of the stuff they sell is stuff we don’t sell, secondary market, out of print material. Jon carries more product than you could fit into most of our stores. If we don’t sell the product, then we’re not very well in competition with him. If they sell to people who aren’t interested in buying from us, then we’re not much in competition to him. I would argue that this industry as a whole is seeing more money coming into it because of internet sellers. However, I think it’s key to note, that the internet sellers primarily sell only to existing customers. They don’t create new customers. What they’ve done is they’ve captured, they’ve retained some of those customers that would have left the industry earlier, but now with the option of buying online, we have more of them sticking around, especially because they can also sell products to people and Jon. So do I believe that the industry is larger? Yes, because I think that we’ve retained people that we would have lost otherwise.

However, most of the money that’s being made by the online people, I don’t think [remains] in the industry. Selling secondary market and out of product materials, doesn’t put money into the new manufacturers’ pockets, it doesn’t help the new retailer, it doesn’t help the industry as a whole. It’s certainly great for the online discounter, but it’s not necessarily helping the industry, so yes, I think we’re a larger industry, I think we have more money, I think we’re retaining more people, and I think that the online people are benefiting from that tremendously, and I don’t see them as as much competition as most people fear them. But I also don’t see that extra money as benefiting the industry as a whole, so much as benefiting just the online retailer. Thank you.

Controlling Online Discounting: Realistic or Not?

Michael Stackpole: These guys are being a lot more reasonable than they would’ve been if we’d just given them sharpened spoons and tossed them into a locked room. [Laughter.] Really annoying. Alright so given what you guys have said, given that online retailers seem to be selling a lot of product that’s not available in store and Dave’s contention that the customer base that they’re selling to may not be a customer base which is attached to a store, the next question that I have to ask is is it then realistic then to suggest or suppose that online discounting, or discounting in any sort can be curtailed? Is there a way to control this?

Just to steal something that John and I in an earlier conversation had, you know, one of the largest discount retailers in the world on the internet is not a game retailer, it’s Amazon. And we’ve seen what Amazon has done elsewhere, so do you think that it’s possible that there are going to be efforts to curtail this stuff and control this stuff that would be effective? And if not, what are the strategies that we have to use as an industry to promote what goes on? Do we run a risk, if everybody looks at the internet and says “Because there were discounters, internet is bad, therefore I will keep my store firmly in the 18th century.” Or is there a way to sort of say, “Let’s decouple the ecommerce the e-commerce side and the negativity there and look at the other good thing the internet is good for, which is delivering information.” Are there things that our stores can do to use that half of the internet to both grow the industry and to increase what goes on? And I’ll start with you, Dave.

David Wallace: Alright, I think to address the subject, the first thing we all have to recognize: discounting did not come into play with the internet. I mean, come on, 30 years, how many stores out there discount? How many of you retailers [are] listening to “The guy down the street will sell it for 20, if you’re not going to match his price, I’m going to buy it elsewhere.”? It’s nothing new. However I do think the internet has changed discounting from the way it used to be. The two key elements that come into play here is that first off the threshold to enter business has dropped to nothing. If you want to open up a brick and mortar store, even if you’re doing it on a shoestring, you need to have enough resources to get a good shot at it. If you want to open up an online discounting store, 12 year old kids working out of their bedrooms are doing it. 60 year old grandmothers are doing it to supplement their business. You don’t have to have any resources. You can simply go into business. You don’t have to have an infrastructure. You don’t have to have a warehouse. You don’t have to have inventory. You don’t have to have employees. So that has certainly changed from what discounting used to be. That lack of infrastructure is what leads to customers saying to you “Well, you bought it for 10, why don’t you sell it to me for 11? You’re still making a profit.” I’m still making a profit? You’re right, it’s 1 dollar. The problem is is that inventory is only one of the things that I have to pay for, my infrastructure, my fixed costs, my labor costs, exceed that 10 percent that the dollar represents. I cannot run my business in that fashion. The business model will not allow for it. But for that 12 year old, inventory cost is the only expense he faces. Now John ironically here has larger fixed costs and labor costs than any of the retailers in this room. Trust me, if you look at his bills, you’d appreciate how well you have it. He knows that he can’t get away with that on the internet, but that 12 year old can. That’s why we see this incredible push towards, you know, I have to sell it for a 1 percent profit margin. Do I think that the manufacturers can change this?

Manufacturers, please don’t misunderstand me, thank you. I appreciate your gestures. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but the reality is, it’s all symbolic, you can’t stop discounting from taking place. Nobody can stop discounting from taking place. John is not buying direct from the manufacturers. He’s not signing contracts with them agreeing not to discount. They can’t control it. I do appreciate their efforts, mainly because I appreciate their support. It says that we believe in you and we want to see you successful and I’m going to argue a little bit later that they need us to be successful. But in the end I don’t really see manufacturers curtailing discounting and stopping it from affecting us. Like it or not, it’s what we live in. In an ideal world, if discounters didn’t exist, would we be better off? Come on, we don’t live in an ideal world. Realistically let’s get on with what we need to. John?

Jon Huston: What I’d like to focus on is talking about what some manufacturers have done so far in their desire to control or reduce online discounting. Dave was actually wrong in one of his facts, that we did not sign agreements with manufacturers about price. We’ve actually signed agreements with two manufactuers about price and stuck to that agreement. One is Mayfair Games, one is USAopoly. And before I came here, oh! And actually a third one about location. We’ve actually signed an agreement with Games Workshop. Each of those three companies have a different set of rules. The Games Workshop rule is if you sign a deal with them, you cannot sell online, at least using a cart. Since we use a cart we don’t list their stuff on our website. We signed the deal with Games Workshop because we sell Games Workshop in both of our retail stores. USAopoly, that was something that only happened in the last 3 to 6 months. USAopoly had us sign an agreement that we would sell things only at Suggested Retail Price, I think that’s what it was. And Mayfair’s had an agreement for several years, 4 or 5 years, something like that, that we have to sell everything at a maximum discount of 20 percent. That is, we have to sell everything at 80 percent or more. That puts Settlers of Catan, by the way, [at] $33.60. So I had one of my staff study the internet just before I came here to look for the effect on those three manufacturers. He found that Games Workshop, which is not supposed to have anything for sale on the internet, actually found vast quantities of their stuff for sale on both Amazon and eBay. USAopoly which is supposed to have everything Suggested Retail and hopefully USAopoly won’t be mad at me saying this about them, is they don’t seem to be enforcing it, or they don’t seem to be successful in enforcing it, because he [John’s researcher] was hard pressed to find the stuff at suggested retail from anyone. But the third company, Mayfair, which has been enforcing their policy for a number of years, it was very difficult for him to find Settlers of Catan for less than $33.60.

There’s actually a website out there, if you want to study Amazon pricing on any item for the last two, three years, the website’s called camelcamelcamel.com. See you don’t even have to write it down, a brilliant name, you go to camelcamelcamel.com, you can pick Amazon off the list, type the name of the item or its UPC code, you can look at Settlers of Catan and see that other than two or three ocurrences over the last year that Settlers of Catan has been on Amazon, it’s stuck at $33.60. That’s what their price has been. What my staff member said to me, and I agreed with him, is that if a manufacturer wants to set a reasonable online price and is willing to enforce it and spend the time to enforce it, I believe that that manufacturer could probably be able to maintain that price as they have for Settlers of Catan. I’m not sure whether or not that enforcement of that price really ends up having any effect overall on the success of that item among gamers or for the manufacturer themselves, but as far as it goes, manufacturers do have some ability to control online pricing, if they want to do so.

Do Game Stores Need to Shift to Serving as Community Hubs?

Michael Stackpole: Yeah, I think that one point I would just add to that as we saw in the book trade when Borders went out of business last year, that immediately affected Barnes & Noble, in terms of the fact that they were selling off all this stock, there’s no chance to enforce things at Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail Price and that did damage to Barnes & Noble, did damage to some independent bookstores. And if you have a retail outlet and the store on the other side of your town goes out of business and starts selling everything off, there’s going to be no enforcement, you’re going to take that hit regardless. So the enforcement of those discounts becomes a really tricky thing if that’s all you’re going to trust your future to. You need to be looking at certain other strategies, which brings me to my next question, and again, everybody who’s here probably already knows this. I know that we do have some brand new retailers and so I hope that your answers can address some of this for them.

What I’ve seen in the Phoenix area in the book market is that two very successful independent book stores have shifted from what they used to be to now being, in essence, event venues with a rather large gift shop attached to them. That’s how they’ve shifted what they do, it’s not just you’re going for the books, you’re going there because an author is going to be there or they are holding a class or they are having a workshop. And then you purchase those ancillary things. And again, you guys, what is that you see-, what are the resources that retailers have got, in this business, to do those sorts of things? Is that sort of shift neccessary? Is providing essentially that community hub, going to be the thing that successfully allows stores to flourish regardless of the availability of product on the net? What are your thoughts on that and what do you see, especially with your retail areas, that you do to make sure that your store flourishes regardless? So, we’ll start with you, John.

Jon Huston: This is where I have a good perspective, because we just opened a second retail store a little over three weeks ago. And we opened it in a small town of 7,000 people, only 7 miles away from a major online discount retailer. And we put everything in our store at Suggested Retail Price and keep in mind that that meant anyone coming into our store can, they can just drive 7 miles away and get it for a cheaper price from those Troll and Toad.com folks down the road and what’s even more embarassing is in our store we have a sign that says that the store is a Troll and Toad store, so some of our customers coming in want to know why we don’t match the prices online and we just let them know, that if they would like to buy from online, we recommend that they do. But in our store we don’t match online discounts. [Some laughter].

“For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment.”

– Jon Huston

Our store is doing very well. But the reason that our store is doing well is because we’re not trying to match the online discounter’s price, we realize that trying to discount is not going to be a successful way to do profit. I’m very sold on Dave’s talks that he’s done in earlier years that I’ve listened to, and he continues to preach that discounting in your store is ultimately just a way for you to get less money into your store. Instead, you should be focusing your store on what the online discounter cannot provide, which is the immediate experience of being able to provide them with a product in hand, to give them that community, to give ’em a store where they feel it’s worth paying more money. For centuries, we’ve had places called taverns, and what a tavern is, it’s a place you can go in, and pay for alcohol 3 or 4 more times than a local store. So why the hell do people go into a tavern to buy a drink when they could just go across the road and get it cheaper? It’s because of the environment. If you can put together an environement that makes people appreciate the environment they are in, most people are going to be willing to spend the money to help maintain that environment because they appreciate it.

David Wallace: I certainly want to address what they’re talking about, but before I do, I want to make what I think is a key point. Mike talked about brick and mortar stores being a portal into the industry, a way of creating customers. This is where I think that the industry in general has to wake up. I said earlier that the online discounter, the online retailer, basically services the existing gamer. They’re not creating new gamers. That’s what we need the brick and mortar stores for. 2-3,000 stores filled with goobers who love what they do so much that they can’t wait to share it with anybody that’ll stand there long enough to listen to them. This is how to create new people. Every industry suffers from attrition. You’re always losing people. If you don’t have a greater influx of new people than you have people going out the door, you’re going to eventually suffer and go out of business. This industry needs the brick and mortar store to create new customers. We are the missionaries who convert the heathen into gamers. [Laughter] As good as the online store can be, it will never succeed in doing that. The industry requires it. Now, how do we go about doing that?

Yes, values. Price is a value. There are people who like getting more for less money. That’s pretty much everyone. There is a percentage of our market share that price is the single most important value there is and they will shop online at those discounters no matter what. They’re not your customers. Stop thinking of them as your customers; they don’t belong to you. You will never get their business. If everybody else goes under and you’re the last store on the face of the earth, they still don’t want to give you any money. Alright? Price is all important to them. Fortunately price is not the only value that’s out there. I’ve listened for 10 to 12 years, people preaching to me, that I’m dead. You are a dinosaur. You’re extinct, you’re just too stupid to know it, lay down and die like you’re supposed to. You cannot compete on product, because they can get cheaper online. The fallacy behind this is that everybody that preaches this sees the buying public as one homogenous mass, that all value the same thing. I don’t know about you, but my sales are going up. And it’s not because my customers are too stupid to know that they have options out there. They have other values. John’s right; don’t compete on price, because that’s not what they were coming to you for in the first place. If you want to give away the money, they’ll take it. But they’re there for other reasons, they like your location, they like the time they spend in your store. It’s like walking into a garden, all the stress goes out of it, you’re just happy to be there. They love talking to people that share what they like. They like finding out about new stuff. They want to pick it up and hold it in their hands. They like the people that they meet in your store, the community that you have.

The key here is to recognize that not only can you not compete on price, but you don’t have to compete just on community. I’ve been told for 12 years, that the only way I’ll stay in business is by having an organized play and selling chips and soda. That’s crap. I can sell product from here to the next 50 years, because I provide other values, not price, and not just community service. There’s 50 ways you can go back and improve your store right now and improve the fact that people love shopping with you. Every one of those is bringing new people in and that’s where this industry’s getting its new customers.

What Should Game Manufacturers Do to Help Retailers?

Michael Stackpole: Again, no blood? This is really surprising me. I did for, just so you know, I did for a while manage a Flying Buffalo game store, so I have got a certain amount of experience and I’ve always felt that community is a core part of what we actually do. But I also notice that one of the problems that we have, and I’ll label it as a problem, is because we’re all gamers, we look for the rules, we try and figure out what the Victory Conditions are, and we invariably attempt to hack the rules. And we think of it as just this game and we tend to miss the idea that selling to people, retailing, is actually a much bigger game. And there are other places that do it very successfully and play very successfully. I think one of the things which is incumbent upon it, and I did this when I was managing the Flying Buffalo store, it’s incumbent upon all of us as retailers to go out to some of those other retail outlets whether it’s a Target or it’s a Wal-Mart, or it’s a Nordstrom’s. You know, I think if every retailer here went to a Nordstrom’s or a Neiman Marcus and just see how that they treat customers and we looked at how we can apply that to our audience and what we do, we would benefit greatly as a community.

So my next question, I’m going to start with Dave, is in this idea of we want the brick and mortar stores, because as you say, they are apostles, I’ve always seen games as being more shared as a disease vector, so this would be a virus hot spot. But we’ll go with missionaries and chapels and that sort of things, because it’s much more pleasant, and we are in Vegas where people are praying all the time [laughter], so what do you see, what are the things that you want to encourage manufacturers to do that they’re not doing enough of, or that have been really really successful that helps you spread the word, that helps you be that missionary to go ahead and grow. And you can talk about successful programs that you’ve seen or things that you would like to see, or things that you remember companies having done in the past that were very useful, and you know, have just fallen by the wayside, because unfortunately some of those companies have been culled down through the years. And that’s a question totally off script, so if they look like they’re deer in the headlights, now you know why.

David Wallace: Yeah, I’m going to start off by “Where did that come from?” Again, we add value, but we add value in different ways. A brick and mortar retailer that panics and sees the online business as competition, that thinks that the only way that they can match that competition is by matching price is cutting their own throat. First, let’s recognize the fact that they’re not competition, not seriously. We tend to deal with this as an emotional thing. Every one of us has had customers come into our store and say “You’re a crook. How dare you charge retail price. What the hell kind of a fool are you?” I love this story I heard from a guy that worked for Dream Pod 9. He had a guy come to their website, order a bunch of stuff, and when he gave him the price, the kid said “Well, why aren’t you giving it to me at cost?” And he said “Well, what would we pay our bills with and make a living?” And the kid told him, “Go out and get a job like the rest of us.” [Laughter]

Competition would suggest that we share something in common. If John sells two million dollars worth of Magic singles and Yu-Gi-Oh singles over the course of the year and you don’t sell singles, are you in competition? If he sells to customers who would never come into your store, is he really competing with you? The fact of the matter is that we don’t actually share a lot of competition. It’s the emotion. I don’t like being accused of being a crook because I charge full price. It hurts when somebody comes into my store and says “Even though I got into it because of you, and I love you, and you know, you came to my wedding. I’m going to buy online, I can’t support you anymore.” Emotionally it’s very difficult for us and mostly it’s fear. If I’m not successful, can I find a scapegoat? Can I blame it on someone else? But the reality is we don’t have that much competition. So if you turn around and give in and say that I have to compete with them and that I’ll do it on price, you’re not going to get anywhere. You can compete, but there’s not much competition to begin with. Don’t focus on the online store, you’re a brick and mortar store: they’re not your customers.

Most of them want to be in a place that they like going to. That’s what it comes down to. I enjoy being in your store. If coming into your store means you’ve got product on the shelves, somebody sitting behind a counter painting a fig, and they finally look up and say “Did you want fries with that?”, you’re not adding much value to their time in your shop. On the other hand, if you have some kickass displays, if being in your store is fun, if you’ve got hands-on, interactive, if you’re employees aren’t sitting behind a counter, if they’re out working with customers, if you’ve got demos, if you’ve got events, if you’ve got just wonderful product mix with unique and interesting things, and something new showing up every week, now you’re bringing value in in a lot of different ways. The only way that I’ll disagree with Mike: communtiy absolutely, positively, it’s an absolute value and you should take advantage of it. But to suggest that it’s the only one is ridiculous. You can run a store without any gaming space whatsoever and be tremendously successful by providing other values. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. It’s a guaranteed way to bankruptcy. This casino certainly doesn’t please all the people all the time. You don’t have to. Please the ones that you’re trying to take advantage of. Oh, that came out bad. [Laughter.] Please the ones that you’re there for, your targeted audience. Make your competitive edges line up and reinforce the people that you want to please. That person that wants you to sell at 35 percent off isn’t your customer. Stop trying to please them. Go back to the ones that you’re making money on. Those customers belong to John. Let him have them. They’re not yours.

Michael Stackpole: (…manufacturers?… Any one dream thing that you’d like to see from manufacturers?)

My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it.

– Dave Wallace

David Wallace: You know the only thing I can really say about manufacturers is not what I want them to do for me, it’s what I want them not to do. I don’t want them to panic. I don’t want to believe that we’re dinosaurs, that we don’t have a future. I don’t like it when a manufacturer starts trying to cut into my customers and cut me out of the loop… Paizo. [Applause.] I want my manufacturers to stand behind me. We are the sales force to them. What sense does it make to fire your sales force? If you go back to your stores and fire everybody that works behind the counter, what do you think’s going to happen? I don’t need them to give me any special deals and I don’t need them to break his back [Jon Huston and other online retailers] and tell him he can’t sell at a discount. I just need them to recognize that I’m not dead. My sales are up. My store is healthy! I love what I do and I’m going to keep doing it. Don’t give up on me. They don’t have to help me. They just don’t have to abandon me. [Applause.]

Jon Huston: I believe the essence of your question was “What could manufacturers do to help brick and mortar stores more, correct?” First, I’ll start by two things that I dont think actually help them. One is making limited edition items where you only get a few for each store. From my perspective, I see this as a way of just antagonizing people in that store, who want to know why they weren’t the ones who got it, the person behind the counter got it, or his best friend got it. It seems that that just kind of does a negative thing. And generally what will happen is this is going to drive up the price between those few lucky people that got into your store, [they] buy it, and then they send it to us or put it on Amazon or eBay themselves and make the extra money so that they can get the full price. The other thing that I’ve seen manufacturers do is do only a certain amount of product for each store location and I think that is a self-limiting factor because, again kind of like the limited edition thing, it means that you’re capping the success of any of the brick and mortar stores that you sell to. A brick and mortar store, say, in Chicago is probably going to be able to sell a lot more than a brick and mortar store in, say, Anchorage, Alaska, though the one in Anchorage, Alaska actually kicks pretty good butt; I’ve been to it. I probably should have picked Idaho instead. [Laughter] But those limitations aren’t good.

Fantasy Flight Games Media Center displaying FF logo on its iPad

The Fantasy Flight Media Center

Clear plastic dome of a Skylanders demo unit in a Kmart

Activision’s Skylanders Display in a Kmart

Where I could see manufacturers really helping out brick and mortar stores over online is first putting together really effective demo units for stores that would promote the merchandise, for when people see the promotional unit, they’re driven to buy the items right there. There’s a local K-Mart that has this beautiful display of all the Skylander figures in little rows. Now mind you that Skylander is so hot there’s no need for them to promote it anymore, but I was looking at that, thinking “Wow, if those kinds of things were made for retail stores, where they could buy them and put them in…” And then I realized that some retail stores do that; they have people paint the figures and bring them in and set them up in a glass showcase and they look so cool, people want to buy the figures so they can paint them themselves or often want to buy the painted figures and want to know why you won’t sell them to them. [Laughter] But the point is demonstration. Demo stuff like that, especially three dimensional demo stuff would, I think, be very strong for brick and mortar stores. This is what I’d like to ask, one question of the audience: for those of you who carry the Fantasy Flight Games iPad demo device in your store, if you feel that it’s increased the sales of Fantasy Flight Games in your store, could you raise your hand? Alright, so that’s an example, I think, of a rather low cost, you know, doesn’t take up a lot of space, and yet a manufacturer can use that and other things to promote sales in brick and mortar stores.

Is the Game Industry’s Current 3 Tier Distribution System Sustainable?

Michael Stackpole: To take from what both of you said, something that I always felt was very important again when I was managing the store, was something that I looked at, was that it is possible to manufacture demand for a particular product line in your store, provided you find a way to push it. I remember this was back in the Dark Ages, there was a game called Arduin Grimoire, which some of you may remember, and this again, back in the Dark Ages, saddle-stapled book, very hard to read, small type, horrible illustrations, but we stocked it just because we wanted to stock one of everything and back in those days you actually could. And I suddenly noticed that the game started to sell. And so we’d replace it and it would sell and replace it and it would sell. In the course of six weeks, we moved six copies and then it stopped selling and I was totally baffled as to why that had actually been [the case]. Then I found out that one of our regulars had started running a campaign and so all of his players came in and they bought that product and they got it out.

So finding those people in your stores, who are opinion-makers, finding those people who look to new product, using them to perhaps teach classes on how to GM this particular game or using them to run demos of the game becomes a way that you can begin to drive demand for what goes on. I’m going to get to our last question and I think in many ways you guys have answered it, but I want to sort of gather your thoughts together, and this is the dreaded question #6, which I hoped I would never get to on our list. Do you think that the industry’s current 3-tiered system is sustainable? And if it’s not, what’s the impetus to stop manufacturers from going direct? We’ve already talked about what stores bring to the industry. If manufacturers went direct, what do you see as – for both online retailers and brick and mortar retailers – what do you see the future of the industry to be?

Jon Huston: I think the 3 tier distribution system is critically important to keep brick and mortar retailers to be able to continue to get their product. From my perspective, a small retail store, if they had to buy all their product directly only from manufacturers to carry in their store, they would severely cut the number of different manufacturers’ products that they would be carrying. They simply wouldn’t be able to and the industry in the far past has had this experience in a similar manner in the comic book industry when Marvel, they got to be at a point where they were somewhere around 60 percent of all comic book sales, changed to a system where they would sell direct to all the comic book stores. And the comic book industry took many years to recover from the disaster that ensued and Marvel themselves, the drop in sales that occurred by trying to go direct to all the stores. After a few years they ended up giving up and that’s where Diamond Comic Distributors ended up becoming pretty much the only distributor of comic books out there. And I lived through that experience, because that was long before I had a mail order catalogue, I had a comic and game store. So I don’t think that that would be good for the industry at all and I think it’d especially be bad for smaller manufacturers and the smaller manufacturers are often those who bring in innovative new products. So in that regard, I could see a major presence like there is, in fact, one manufacturer who’s gone direct: Games Workshop. But as a result of going direct, has that really benefitted Games Workshop that much? From my perspective I don’t think so. I think it would have been better if they’d continued to distribute through the 3 tier system and not go direct. I think they’ve struggled for a number of years with their growth, that they couldn’t have experienced if they stayed in the 3 tier system.

David Wallace: I’ve already suggested that my fear is that manufacturers will lose faith in us, that they will think that we are no longer a viable alternative and I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that happening? We have to look at a basic assumption here. Has more money entered into this industry as a result of online retailers? Yes. There’s no question about it. There is more money in the industry. Unfortunately most of that money, as I said, is tied up in secondary product, out of print material, it’s not coming into our industry, it’s staying in the online retailers’ pockets. And the natural assumption is, that if they’re doing well, we must be doing badly. Otherwise where’d their money come from? And this overlooks the idea that they are helping us retain gamers and that’s where the money is coming from. Just because they are doing well, doesn’t mean that we are doing badly. But because, again, we get emotional about it and because there are always stores looking for a scapegoat because they don’t want to accept responsibility for themselves, we point the finger and say that they are stealing our customers away. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a bad assumption.

Our industry is not hurting. We’re not in trouble. We picked up additional monies. That’s not a bad thing. The only way it really hurts us is that the online discounter has got so much money coming in from customers that we no longer deal with. As John told you, he’s carrying product that you don’t have in your store. Not because you can’t get it, because you can’t sell it to your small local market. He’s got the world to deal with, he can sell to a larger market. It’s still valuable material for him, it’s still generating money for him. You’re not in competition with him, it’s just generating money that wasn’t there before. Because he can make money doing that – this is obviously not addressed at John, I’m talking about the online retailer – it allows them to also sell new product at a lower price. They are subsidizing their ability to sell products that you do carry at a reduced price because of the money they are making on the secondary market, the out of print, the long tail. It’s not fair – that’s an emotional term – but the only real harm from it, is that it effectively devalues that product. “How can you possibly justify selling Settlers of Catan for X number of dollars when I can buy it online for 30 percent less than that?” So do we have competition? Absolutely. But it’s not that much, it’s only in limited areas, and it’s not going to drive you out of business. Most of their success did not come at our cost.

There’s nothing wrong with the 3 tier system. We should embrace it, we should run with it, we should do everything we can to make all parts of the industry as healthy as we possibly can. We need to remember that we’re the incubators; we generate the new customers. If we do away with the 3 tier system, we do away with our ability to generate new customers, although ironically, you finally hit upon a solution that will do away with most of the online discounters: if the manufacturers are selling it direct to the customers, why would they sell it to anybody else at a cheaper price? Unfortunately doing away with the online discounters that way is also committing suicide as a hobby. It’s not going to help our industry. So it’s not a solution to our problem. Manufacturers that don’t support us are going to do better in the short run, but in the long run, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you suffer attrition, retailers can’t sell your product, therefore they’re not going to push your product, you’re not going to pick up new customers, you’re dealing with a smaller clientele. It’s happened before. Columbia Games cut us out of the loop. How well are they doing right now? Hero Systems sent out an email saying we’re in trouble, stop buying from your store, come and buy from us. How well did that work for them?

“Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble.”

– Dave Wallace

We are the sales force. We are a neccessary part of this. The wonderful thing about all of this is if you get past the emotion, if you just look at this from an objective viewpoint. We’re not doomed. This is not out of your control. Every last bit of this is strictly up to you. Go run a successful store, push the values that are available to you, and you will do just fine. Talk to the retailers here at the show that are really working their stores. None of them are telling you that they are having problems, they’re going out of business. They’re all telling you that my business is going up. We’re not in trouble. Don’t give into the fear, don’t give into the emotions. Deal with this as an intelligent businessperson and go back and take care of your own business. The danger here is that we tend to see this like an episode of “Survivor”: there’s only one winner. But you don’t get paid because your comptetition does badly; you get paid because you did it right. Nobody’s going to come to you at the end of the year and say “Everybody else went out of business, you’re the winner, here’s your million dollars.” Stop looking at it that way! Competition has nothing to do with it. Forget the stores in your city, forget the online, just run the best damn store you can. You’ll be fine. [Applause.]

Michael Stackpole: I’d like to thank both of our panelists and you for being very solemn and listening and having interest in what was a very important discussion. I think ultimately if you listen to everything that was said, it comes down to this: know your customer base, figure out what it is that they need, and then figure out how you’re going to deliver that to them. And that is, if you are a manufacturer, your customer base are the distributors and/or the retailers; figure out what they need delivered. If you’re a retailer, look at your customers, figure out what they need and deliver it. That’s the way we run. As Dave succinctly said “Run a successful business and you’ll be ok.” And that’s the way to do it. Thank you very much.

Fantasy Flight Media Center image copyright Fantasy Flight Games, used with permission. Titan’s Entertainment Cafe store picture copyright Titan’s Entertainment Cafe, used with permission.

GAMA Trade Show Crowdfunding: Kickstarter and Indiegogo

If there was a buzz word at the 2012 Gama Trade Show it was Kickstarter. Kickstarter this, Kickstarter that. It came up at almost every seminar I attended. At the wrap-up round table discussion on Friday at the GTS when an attendee questioned what Kickstarter was the room almost exploded with nerd incredulity. Fortunately someone was very brief in describing it and rival Indiegogo: instead of the artist or designer paying for a project, the fans are able to make contributions as a crowd, hence the term crowdfunding. In fancier terms, it’s a pledge aggregation site. As Anthony from the G.U.B.A.R. podcast said in G.U.B.A.R.’s 9th episode, “If you’re in the gaming community and you haven’t noticed Kickstarter, then you’re not paying attention.”

Image of Paul Hughes map of a dungeon from overhead with random encounters.

Dungeon Generator image copyright Paul Hughes.

Before the GAMA Trade Show though, I do have to admit to only having heard the name before and never had actually visited the Kickstarter website. The poster child for Kickstarter at the GTS was the reprint drive for Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick which was brought up at least four times, as well as the fact that he raised $1.2 million with his campaign. In his Next Generation of RPGs, Jim Crocker introduced the idea of retailers using Kickstarter or Indiegogo to find new bleeding edge games for their customers, referencing the Kickstarter project for Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map, which raised $27,789, exceeding its $2,000 goal. Crowdfunding is a big deal. At Michael Stackpole’s Social Networking seminar, there was a rehash of what crowdfunding is and how it can benefit retailers. The idea of store owners talking to their players to find out their interests and ordering on their behalf was again brought up enthusiastically. Another possibility offered by crowdfunding is low-cost hardcopy advertisement in products, such as RPG rule books or expansions. Besides acknowledging individual contributors, a thanks or credits page could cite East Side Games for their assistance. Stackpole was also very modest in the brief crowdfunding discussion, not mentioning his own significant involvement in the launch of Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter ($2,933,252 raised with a goal of $900,000). Besides these various mentions of crowdfunding at the GAMA Trade Show, there was an entire unpublicized breakout session on the topic.

The Impromptu Crowdfunding Roundtable

One of the seminars I wandered into turned out to be quite different than what was posted on the sign; it was an impromptu Crowdfunding Roundtable with about two dozen GTS attendees. One of the factors in deciding between Kickstarter and Indiegogo that was being discussed was the need for a US bank for Kickstarter, whereas Indiegogo is more friendly for overseas crowdfunding. Another key difference is what happens with the funds if a project fails to fund. With Kickstarter, none of the contributors are charged, whereas the funds generated on Indiegogo are left to the developer’s discretion. Consequently an important part of developing on Indiegogo is deciding what you will do with the funds if you don’t meet your goal. They will also charge a higher percentage if your project doesn’t fund. Everyone who has conducted a Kickstarter campaign stressed that all of the prep work should be done first for the project and that developers should set realistic goals.

Retailer Scott Thorne shared his experience in using crowdfunding “years before Kickstarter or other forms of online crowdfunding became available.” The problem at his game store, Castle Perilous, was seating. Thorne solicited his customers for donations of $20 to help get new chairs for the store. He offered an inducement of putting each participant’s name on the back of an individual chair. The vanity reward paid off with 20 customers participating and securing the new seating for the store.

Others spoke on crowdsourcing. Vicky Beaver was asked to share her experience with Caladon Falls’s successful funding on Indiegogo and generally agreed with many of the other principles expressed about successful project management described here. Someone shared that less than 1% of project backers fail to make payment when it comes time to fund a successful Kickstarter project, which meshed with a project that was brought up which had secured $12,000 in funding, though one contribution of $5 didn’t come through.

Cover for Hellas the role playing game showing futuristic Greek spacefarer

The Hellas RPG Reprint has had 16 Updates

Jon Huston from Troll and Toad contributed that for him the updates are really important. Every Kickstarter that Huston has signed up for has fully funded, he said, including Wasteland 2. As a project moves along its developers can post updates to let fans know how far along from the goal they are, to encourage further advertising, and to keep fans abreast of any changes. The update posts to the Kickstarter project page, but also generates an email to backers. So far on the Hellas RPG reprint Kickstarter there have been 16 updates, with 11 of those before the project met its goal and 5 since then.

The Retail-Friendly Kickstarter Email List

David Wheeler of Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy with stores in Austin, San Antonio, and a franchised store in Bellevue, WA attended the impromptu discussion. He has put together an email list of Kickstarter-friendly retailers, so if you are either developing a game project or are a retailer interested in this list, you can join it by emailing info at dlair.net. As of May 1, there were 47 interested retailers on the list.

Crowdfunding: Not for Everyone

Larry Roznai pointed out one perceived flaw with crowdfunding at the Domestic Manufacturing GTS seminar. Roznai argued that by offering games as rewards on Kickstarter, the manufacturer is bypassing retailers and in his experience, retailers are where manufacturers should be focusing their efforts. He’s not alone in urging caution when it comes to Kickstarter and Indiegogo. One attendee at the impromptu roundtable pointed out that it is deceptively easy to fail on Kickstarter. Failed Kickstarters aren’t advertised or promoted by Kickstarter and a project developer is unlikely to point out past failures. Since no money gets charged from contributors to failed projects, there are seldom any hard feelings, so a contributor is less likely to recall failed projects as well. However, in the exhibit hall later, a manufacturer mentioned that a friend intentionally launched a project, knowing it would fail, as a means of advertising a new product from his company. This is not what Kickstarter is all about and could have hurt the company’s reputation.

Kickstarter Veteran: Impact Miniatures

Tom Anders from Impact Miniatures has successfully funded 4 projects using Kickstarter, with the largest being a $5000 fund for a miniature ape football team. Anders had been approached about making a football team of great apes by a customer, but doubted that it would sell. Rather than dismiss the ape fan outright, Anders offered to put it on Kickstarter. The fan of football playing-primates rallied his friends and kicked in $2,000 of the project himself. The finished figures should be coming out in June. His minor inducements to contribute included a variety of figures, but Anders had two top tier stretch rewards. As Anders explains “stretch rewards are incentives that you offer the people after you’ve hit your goal.” In the case of the Ape Team, these included a customer getting an ape tattoo as one reward, with the other being a sixth sculpt for the primate team. The Apes of Wrath was selected by Kickstarter as a featured project, but only for a day. Anders did see a small spike in contributions while featured in the Top 3, but pointed out that he watches another game designer’s campaigns. When she would advertise being at a convention in her updates, there were much larger spikes in her funding on those convention days than what she got when her project was also featured in the Top 3. Anders agreed that “personal contact drives” Kickstarter.

As for the importance of updates, Anders says they are, “Vital. I have found that the Kickstarters that communicate on at least a bi-weekly basis seem to do much much better than the ones that just throw it out and don’t really let anyone know what’s going on. One of the things that Order of the Stick did so well was that every 2 days he sent out an update to thank everyone, to let them know what he was working on, to let them know what the next stretch reward would be.”

Impact Miniatures will be releasing their next project, Impact City Roller Derby, on Kickstarter with a projected date of May 15. When we talked at the GAMA Trade Show in March, Anders and his team had already come up with 5 different stretch rewards for the roller derby game. He also has already planned ahead to his promotion schedule for the future Kickstarter campaign, planning at least two convention events to help him sell it to potential backers. As for his track record with receiving the pledged funds, in Anders’s experience with the 4 projects, he has received 100% of the pledged funds which are charged through Amazon.com.

Further Kickstarter Advice: Collins Epic Wargames

Bunker Tile for Spearpoint 1943 from Collins Epic Wargames showing a bunker complex

A Kickstarted Tile Found in the Spearpoint ’43 Map Expansion

While at the GAMA Trade Show, besides interviewing Byron Collins about Collins Epic Wargaming’s upcoming 6mm sci-fi rules set Polyversal, I also asked him about Kickstarter and his experience with it. He pointed out that “it’s a great tool, but that’s what it is, a tool. It’s not the end all solution for you as a designer.” C.E.W. first used Kickstarter to fund the Spearpoint 1943 Map Expansion and he plans on crowdfunding again. The Spearpoint ’43 Map Expansion was a 60 day campaign and was a success, receiving over $10,000 for its goal of $7,500, or 135% funding. A key aspect of a successful Kickstarter plan according to Collins is taking the time to come up with excellent rewards for your backers. One prestige level of reward Collins offered was the chance to appear as a character in the game’s stories authored by Mark Walker that will accompany the map expansion. Another tier of rewards was unlocked when the Spearpoint expansion reached $10,000, allowing Collins to include more bonus map tiles, as a stretch reward. Despite the success, Collins has noted areas where he could improve in future campaigns and is willing to share his experience with others designers. As for general advice to game developers on doing their first Kickstarter, Collins suggests:

“If you’re about to launch a Kickstarter campaign and nobody knows who you are, you’re on the wrong path. You need to already be out there, on BoardGameGeek maybe, or at a show doing a demo, not necessarily doing a booth, but go play at open gaming at a convention, get a lot of good feedback on that game, test it really well, make sure it’s done, because a lot of games up there, it’s obvious that they’re not fully developed, they’re not fully hashed out.”

Besides Kickstarters going well, Collins pointed out that they can also fail miserably. It is this binary finite nature of Kickstarter, success or failure, that Collins also seems to enjoy. Either fans want it or they do not. He did have this advice to offer though:

One of the things that I see happening is people who have never dealt with game production before, get into Kickstarter, they raise a ton of money, and all of a sudden, you’re on the hook. You’re on the hook with people’s money and that’s a big deal. If you’re not a business, and you launch a Kickstarter, you’ve got some tax implications. Really, either way. You’ve got to think about a lot of those things. You got to think about how you’re going to use that funding. Do you already have production sources? Do you have a good idea of what your goal really should be? Are you spending money on advertising? What’s going to come out of that funded Kickstarter? Is it going to be depleted immediately by ad money that you’ve spent on BoardGameGeek. I mean, that may be well spent to help it work, but if you’ve spent all your production money from Kickstarter, you’re going to be in debt, really, because you’re on the hook. So when you get on the hook like that, make sure you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t have any sources, there’s people in the industry, including myself, that are willing to help because we don’t want to see people making mistakes that take a great idea and end up not making it happen, because I’m a gamer myself. I like to see new great games, I’ve backed a bunch on Kickstarter myself and the good games out there, you can tell the ones that are done well, and you can tell the ones that aren’t quite ready for Kickstarter, so there’s a lot of prep, and there’s a lot of engagement you have to maintain with people who are watching your project.

First Kickstarter from GTS Attendee: Disaster Looms

Text "Disaster Looms!" over a space and planetary background for board gameI attended several panels and ate with Eric Salyers at the GAMA Trade Show. Also new to the GTS and game manufacturing, he brought his space exploration game Disaster Looms! with him. The game is a boardless board game, using hexagonal playing tiles instead, which I thumbed through at the show. His company Break From Reality games has just launched its Disaster Looms! Kickstarter campaign with a goal of raising $25,000. His team at Break From Reality Games is getting the word out via Facebook ads and updates, BoardGameGeek ads and updates, in-store demos, and Kickstarter itself.

Disaster Looms! is offering at least two tiers of retailer-only awards, because, in Salyers’s words, “game stores are the back-bone of our industry” as well as being “the nexus of our community.” Several of Disaster Looms! rewards include in-store game promotion from the Break From Reality team. As he sees it, “I am in this for the long-haul, and plan to release other game titles, and expansions – I need to have an alliance with the game store owner as early as possible.”

Salyers is no stranger to Kickstarter having funded 18 projects so far. He points to The Present as both the first Kickstarter he helped fund and as an inspiration for him as a creator. Salyers actually created Disaster Looms! the night he watched The Present. He also has funded several TMG titles due to his love of “great game play and creatives themes.”

As for stretch rewards, Salyers and his team at Break From Reality have given it a lot of thought:

Our team had rewards chosen all the way to $125,000 funding level. We have released the $32,500 level, and the $40,000 level. We have hinted that there is a $55k+ level as well. We are sitting at 23% funded after 3 days … and we know of a couple thousand in commitments to come. So we are feeling happy, though still stressed about whether we will make our goal. And in particular – we really want to hit the $40,000 level of funding so we can release the game as a 2-6 player game. We really wanted to do this from the outset, but it too high of a goal to start off with for an unknown company with an unknown IP [Intellectual Property]. Stretch goals to us are all about rewarding backers, and creating rewards that will be really appreciated by our backers. We spent literally weeks on the design, testing, and validation of what we wanted as stretch goals. It would not be good enough to throw in branded items that would be of no value or real relation to the game play experience. We think the first player token will enhance the play value of the game, and make the bidding process for the token a little more worthwhile each turn. A heavy sculpted coin is fun to fiddle with. Everyone knows it. The 5-6 player expansion, a true expansion mind you, will add not just 2 more players – but more game content. It will add additional replay-ability to the 2-4 player game as well!

The Disaster Looms! Kickstarter will end its run on June 18. According to Salyers, the Kickstarter process is “a very straight forward system” and he’s had no problems or confusion along the way. Like Byron Collins, Salyers also enjoys the finality of the Kickstarter approach: “you have created something, and now you are sending it out to the world to be accepted or denied.”

This “do or die” feature of crowdfunding is also one of its great strengths and one of the reasons the game industry has begun shifting. Instead of conducting market research or trusting a gut instinct or experience when it comes to whether a game will sell or not, even established companies can vet new products and projects on Kickstarter or Indiegogo and actually know whether they might have a winner on their hands. While there are a few complications and problems to this approach of game marketing, overall the effect on the industry should be a great one.

Disaster Looms! box art is copyright Break From Reality, Hellas cover is copyright Khepera Publishing, and the Spearpoint 1943 Bunker Tile is copyright Collins Epic Wargaming, all used with permission.